Merle Haggard was known by his fans as “Hag.” With songs that reflected the working class values and experiences of his own early life, Haggard found an audience in folks that saw the same. The country musician died Wednesday morning in California. It was his 79th birthday.
Haggard’s music was drawn from a life that started in 1937 in a converted train box car, the family home in Bakersfield, Calif. Haggard’s mother and father were part of the mass migration of people from Oklahoma who went to California looking for a better life during the Great Depression. But his father died when Haggard was just nine years old. In a 1995 interview with Fresh Air, he described how that led to an early life of troublemaking.
“I was, to say the least, probably the most incorrigible child you can think of,” Haggard said. “I was on my way to prison before I realized it. But I really don’t know why — I think it was out of boredom and the lack of a father’s attention, I think.”
A robbery landed him in San Quentin prison shortly after he turned 20 and he spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.
“I wound up with nothing to lay on except a Bible and concrete slab,” Haggard said. “I don’t know — it was something about the whole situation that I knew that if I was lucky enough to get out I would be all finished.”
Once he was paroled, Haggard turned to songwriting. His mother had showed him a few basic guitar chords and he taught himself the rest, falling under the spell of songwriters like Jimmie Reed, Bob Wills and Hank Williams.
His hardscrabble beginnings, a fierce independence and his time behind bars all came pouring out in “Sing Me Back Home,” a 1967 song based on his time in solitary confinement where he could hear the voice of a man condemned to die.
“When Haggard sings, it’s not as if he’s performing. When he sings, it’s as if he’s confiding,” author Tom Carter, who spent two years with the singer while they worked on the 2002 biography Merle Haggard’s My House of Memories: For The Record, said in an interview recorded before the singer died. Carter says the singer was driven by telling stories set to music.
“He never stops polishing his craft because he loves his craft,” Carter said.
That craft became part of what was called “The Bakersfield Sound.” During a time when Nashville was all about polished vocals over lush orchestrated arrangements, Bakersfield musician Buck Owens led a sub-genre of country music fueled by a raw honky tonk energy with a little bit of Western swing and performed on electric rock and roll instruments. Merle Haggard’s string of chart successes became part of the sound named after his home town.
Starting in 1966, Merle Haggard scored 37 top ten country hits in a row, twenty three of them reaching No. 1. But his success didn’t guarantee an easy life: his marriages failed and he was largely an absentee father mostly because of the countless miles criss-crossing the country on a bus playing honky tonks and county fairs. The lifestyle and the drinking would haunt him in his later years.
He was labeled an intolerant reactionary for his 1969 song “Okie From Muskogee,” in which he dresses down the counterculture, something he claimed was actually satire.
At the end of his life, Haggard continually found warm receptions from his fans on the road, his later albums expanded his audience beyond hardcore country music fans and fellow musicians, often taking on a philosophical tone.
Merle Haggard wrote the forward to his biography, an early summation of the ingredients of his life and his music. He read it himself for the audio book version:
“I’ve lived through 17 stays in penal institutions. Incarceration in a peniteniary. Five marriages, bankruptcy, a broken back, brawls, shooting incidents, swindlings, sickness, the death of loved ones and more. I’ve heard tens of thousands chant my name when I couldn’t hear the voice of my own soul. I wondered if God was listening and I was sure no one else was.”
With Merle Haggard’s passing, perhaps he’ll finally learn that God was indeed listening and was actually a fan.